My Favourite Film Suddenly Got More Relevant

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

My favourite decade for films is the 1950’s, and I’m sure a lot of people would agree, because the film industry was under immense pressure, not only from the McCarthy investigations which so sadly mirror the paranoia of today, but because the developing TV industry was keeping a lot of folks at home. It seemed the film industry recognised the problem and said, “I know! Maybe if we make better films, people will come out again.” And thus you got such great films as “On The Waterfront,” “All About Eve,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “High Noon,” and the teen fare like “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rebel Without A Cause.” The latter is still a powerful movie, despite a sometimes laughable script and implausible plot.

My favourite film of all time came out in 1957, and addressed the power that television already was having in influencing the general public’s taste. It may not have been the first to do so, I’m truly not sure, but the Elia Kazan film “A Face In The Crowd,” starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal, holds up just as well nearly 60 years after it was released. I do know one other man in San Francisco who agrees with my choice, and coincidentally, we share the same birthday!

The character Griffith plays, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, is a product created by television as a man of the people. He’s discovered by Marcia (Neal), a local radio host and producer, who meets him in a local jail in the Memphis area, and decides to put him on the air in a segment with the film’s namesake title. His initial appearance, where he sings, plays guitar, and tells his own homespun philosophy, gets enough response that he is given his own radio show, with Marcia as his producer. One thing leads to another, and eventually he has a major national hit TV show and is considered the biggest star in the country, all the while maintaining a certain Will Rogers-like innocence.

What makes Griffith’s character so interesting is the way he continues to convey a country boy appearance on the air, while being a ruthless tyrant off camera. He gets so completely caught up in the power of what he’s saying on camera that he fancies himself a shaper of public opinion, that he can dictate how people think. He starts using his power to politically influence candidates for major offices as his ratings continue to rise. He looks at the general public with contempt, that they’re generally stupid and need to be spoon-fed his opinions before they can come up with any of their own. Sound familiar?

Where the Trump similarities fade is in the downfall of Lonesome Rhodes, and while his character hints at running for public office, he gets his comeuppance before he can really pursue it. Like Trump, he is caught saying things he will regret, but these things completely ruin him, whereas Trump’s “Grab them by the pussy” line is already consigned to last month’s news and his public support, while damaged, mostly still stands behind him. Rhodes is destroyed by Marcia, who turns on his studio mic while the closing credits are running, just in time to catch him insulting the people who adore him, but nothing obscene (except for the word “hell” in one scene), and his career is over (unknown to him until later) by the time he’s left the studio. Meanwhile, Trump is still running and still stands a chance of winning, despite many women coming forward with allegations of groping or worse. These things almost destroyed Bill Clinton’s candidacy 24 years ago, but Trump has been pretty adept at sloughing them off and his fan base remains committed to him.

Griffith’s and Neal’s performances in the film are stellar, and so is Walter Matthau as the college-educated (Lonesome was a primary school drop-out) head writer for the TV show, who loves Marcia, but knows she secretly loves Lonesome.  Sadly, the only Oscar nomination for the entire film was Griffith for Best Actor, but he lost to Red Buttons as the solider in love with a Japanese woman in the WWII-based film “Sayonara.”  I don’t begrudge that, he also did a great job, and Andy Griffith’s career remained solid well into the 1980’s, thanks ironically to TV.

I’m going to New York tomorrow for the long-overdue remembrance service for my dad, who died in February, better late than never. This was supposed to happen in May in California, but certain domestic changes in my immediate family meant we had to postpone, then it was decided that New York would be the place to do it, since the rest of my family still lives there. There will also be tributes to his sister, who died last year, and his brother, who died in 2007. The day I return is the day before the election, and the day after the election is my birthday. I’m not sure right now whether or not it will be a happy one.

Meanwhile, seek out this wonderful film if you haven’t seen it. I’ve seen it probably a dozen times and would be fine with another dozen.


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.